Throughout the past two years of visiting and revisiting Thailand, we’ve become very familiar with Sak Yant tattoos, commonly referred to as “Thai bamboo tattoos”. Every other tattoo shop in every city offers some form of traditional Thailand tattoo, Bamboo Tattoo or Sak Yant tattoo.
We knew that walking into a tattoo shop in Bangkok and picking a design out of a book, without even knowing the Sak Yant Tattoo meaning wasn’t even close to the “right way” to do this.
This is How We Got Our Sak Yant Tattoos in Thailand
We were convinced that the art form had lost its authenticity, and assumed that the only way to experience it with any sort of tradition was to go to the famed temple, Wat Bang Phra in Bangkok.
Every day, hundreds of Thais (and foreigners) line up to receive a Sak Yant at Wat Bang Phra. However, after reading some blogs, it started to sound more like an assembly line than a sacred experience.
After waiting several hours in line, you get 5 minutes with a monk (who doesn’t speak English) before receiving your Thai magic tattoo. Most concerning were the reports that the same needle and ink cups were often used for every person.
We’re not saying this is the wrong way to do it, but this type of experience just wasn’t for us.
We had just about resigned ourselves to the idea of never getting a Sak Yant until we met Ian, the founder of Where Sidewalks End, a highly reputable tour company that aims to bring the sacred aspects back into the experience.
We spent some time picking Ian’s brain, he was very patient with us and answered all of our questions. Things like, “what are the cultural implications” and “what are these sak yant tattoo rules we've heard about that we’re supposed to live by afterwards?”
Ian answered all of our questions and sent us a bunch of information about Sak Yant meanings and history. After careful consideration, we realized that this was the kind of Sak Yant Experience we had been looking for.
Hopefully after reading this, you’ll be able to decide for yourself, if this Sak Yant Experience is right for you.
We already had a trip to Bangkok planned, and arranged the tour a few weeks in advance.
We took a day trip to Ayutthaya, Thailand where we met the revered Ajarn Wao to receive our first sak yant tattoos.
It was one of our most powerful experiences in many years of traveling.
What is a Sak Yant Tattoo?
Sak Yant tattoos are sacred geometric designs applied to the body which along with a blessing are believed to have magical properties of protection. Many people get Sak Yant tattoos from temples around Thailand.
The tattoos are applied by an Ajarn, a monk (or former monk) who has trained for years studying the ancient Pali language and the process of sacred Sak Yant tatttoing from previous Masters to become a Sak Yant Master himself. Using a long metal rod called a Khem Sak (historically a bamboo rod) which is sharpened at one end, the Ajarn inks the skin one dot at a time.
Each Ajarn has developed his own style of tattooing, and will incorporate stylized details into each tattoo, like a calling card.
While the bamboo needle was once the inking rod of choice, it is very rare that you’ll find this in practice today.
The bamboo rod has a much shorter life span and has to ability to break and splinter while the metal khem sak rods have a much longer life span, are much more hygenic and are often times passed down from older generations of Sak Yant Masters.
A Bit of Sak Yant History
The practice of Sak Yant predates Buddhism and is native to several countries in Southeast Asia. Before anyone decided to start tattooing magical protection spells on the skin, warriors used to carve yantras onto their armor before battle. The yantras were believed to protect the warriors from physical harm, even stop a bullet or knife from piercing the skin.
However, once they were captured, and their armor was taken from them, the warriors were no longer protected from harm. So, the warriors started to ink their skin with the yantras for permanent protection.
Nowadays, people from all walks of life receive Sak Yants for protections that go far beyond physical harm.
Muay Thai fighters receive designs that embody their inner animal, merchants receive them to promote growth in business, and many women receive them for protection of the heart and family.
There any many reasons to receive a sak yant and the only one who can decide what to protect is you, (and perhaps the Ajarn once he knows more about you).
Our Sak Yant Experience in of Ayutthaya, Thailand
We arranged our experience through Where Sidewalks End in Bangkok. WSE Travel provided us with a local guide, a really cool guy who spoke great English. He answered all of our questions about sak yant, explained the meaning behind some of the different designs, and made sure that we were able to communicate easily with our Ajarn.
We really enjoyed the time spent with our guide and even swapped contact info so we could hang out again at a later date.
WSE Travel offers experiences in many different Thai cities including Chiang Mai, Sukhothai, Bangkok, and others. We chose Ayutthaya, the ancient capital of Thailand, because of its close proximity to Bangkok as well as its rich ancient history which definitely added to the experience.
We were picked up from our apartment in Bangkok by our guide around 8:30 am. We took a taxi to the Mo Chit bus station, where we boarded a mini-bus to Ayutthaya (the ancient capital of Thailand). During the one hour bus ride, we talked with our guide about everything from sak yants, love, life and the pursuit of…well you get the point.
Once we were in Ayutthaya we grabbed a tuk tuk and made our way to the Ajarn’s studio, which is just behind a temple but is actually in his home.
Our experience was nothing like the long wait, assembly line, reused needle experience we had read about. Ajarn Wao took the time to get to know our hearts, and understand our specific requests for protection.
Meeting the Ajarn at the Tattoo Studio
We took off our shoes before we entered the Samnak, and prepared for our meeting with the Ajarn by discussing what we were going to ask for protection. We looked through a book of intricate sak yant designs, and asked our guide what their meanings were while we waited for one other person to finish before our meeting with the Ajarn.
Our guide helped us communicate with Ajarn Wao, a former monk who has been practicing sak yant for over 30 years. Ajarn Wao talked to us about our lives and our attitudes. He designed our unique yants based on our dates of birth, our Thai zodiac and our specific requests for protection in various areas of our lives.
Thanks in part to Ajarn Wao’s notoriously light hand, the tattooing process was not as painful as getting inked by a tattoo gun, and it was quick. Each tattoo took about 15 minutes to apply after which we lit some incense, and then received a blessing from the Ajarn.
We were amazed by how accurate the Ajarn’s perceptions of us were. He told Adam that he is a born wanderer and that he shouldn’t try to live his life in just one place.
He said that I had very strong fire elements, and added some special blessings to help bring this into balance with the other elements of water, earth, and air. In order to do this, he poked some clear sacred oil into my forehead just above the hairline, after he finished the yant on my shoulder.
There were even some surprises along the way which added to the mystical experience.
One of my favorite parts was after the main tattoo when the Ajarn applied a piece of gold leaf to the tattoo and proceeded to poke through it, presumably poking the gold directly into my skin before wiping off the excess gold leaf with sacred oil.
After Getting Our Sacred Tattoos
After the blessing, our guide took us for lunch to process through the experience and answer any lingering questions we had. We ate at a local restaurant and had the Ayutthaya specialty, boat noodles!
Instead of heading straight back to Bangkok with our guide, we decided to spend the afternoon exploring a few of Ayutthaya’s ancient temples which now stand in ruins. Our guide dropped us at a bike rental shop and helped us arrange a motorbike rental.
Spending the afternoon riding around Ayutthaya’s ancient city really helped us feel even more connected to this Thai tradition. We explored a few temple ruins and then grabbed a mini-bus back to Bangkok for 80 baht each.
Now about a week later, our ink is almost completely healed, but the memory is still fresh, and the words of Ajarn Wao are still floating through my mind. Every time I feel a bit fiery, I take a deep breath and try to chill out before speaking or making a decision.
I feel as if we made the right choice in having this experience with a seasoned guide to help us communicate and explain the Ajarn’s words of wisdom to us.
We feel extremely grateful to have had the opportunity to meet Ajarn Wao, and have a sak yant designed specifically for us.
WSE took all the guesswork out of curating this experience for us with their hand selected Ajarns. They told us what to expect and how to prepare, handled the transportation, the offering for Ajarn Wao, the translation, ensured hygenic practices, and even took us for lunch, which allowed us to enjoy the day and not worry about anything, except for being awake and ready to go by 8am.
Oh yeah, and about those Sak Yant Tattoo rules we’re meant to live by..
There is a list of rules associated with receiving a sak yant tatoo. These rules are intended to help you live a more mindful life. They include things like not causing harm to any living beings, and not showing disrespect to your elders.
However, Ajarn Wao gave us each one rule to follow specific to our tattoos. Adam should not allow anyone to step over his upper body. As for me, I should refrain from spitting into bad places (like a toilet, sink or the ground) instead.. I’m to spit into a tissue or onto a wall and let it drip down. (which my mom seemed to think I would do in her house..) This is to promote positive communication.
Over all it was an experience neither of us will soon forget, especially since it is permanently ingrained in our skin. We would absolutely do the whole thing all over again.